A group of 276 people, among them survivors of the shipwreck, were brought from the sea to the port city of Khoms (120 kilometres east of Tripoli) by the Libyan coast guard on Sunday 2 September. MSF has been providing urgent medical assistance following disembarkation.
According to the information received by MSF staff, two rubber boats reportedly left the Libyan coast early in the morning on Saturday 1 September. Each boat was carrying more than 160 people of different nationalities including Sudanese, Malians, Nigerians, Cameroonians, Ghanaians, Libyans, Algerians and Egyptians.
Personal account from a survivor of the shipwreck
“While the first boat had stopped due to an engine failure, our boat continued to navigate and began deflating around 1pm. There were 165 adults and 20 children on-board ”, explains a survivor of the shipwreck.
“At that time, the mobile satellite phone showed that we were not far from Maltese coast. We called the Italian coastguard and sent our coordinates, asking for assistance as people started to fall in the water. We were told they would send someone. But the boat started sinking. We couldn’t swim and only a few people had life jackets. Those among us who could hold on the boat’s floating hood stayed alive.”
“[European] Rescuers came later by air and threw life rafts but everybody was in the water; the boat had already sunk and capsized. A few hours later, other rescuers also came by air, throwing more life rafts. On our boat, only 55 people survived. Many people died, including families and children. They could have been saved if rescuers had come earlier”, the survivor continued.
“More than 20 children have died, including two 17-months old twins who perished, along with their mother and father. The Libyan coastguard also arrived, rescuing first the shipwreck survivors and then recovering the second boat. We were all brought here to Libya.” Only two bodies were recovered.
MSF emergency response
MSF has treated survivors with chemical burns from the engine petrol spills.
“Our medical team worked solidly for several hours to assist survivors with the most serious conditions”, says Jai Defranciscis, an MSF nurse working in Misrata, northwest Libya. “We managed to treat 18 urgent cases – among them were nine people suffering from extensive chemical burns (up to 75 percent of the body). We organised a referral to the hospital for a patient in particularly critical condition: without quick access to specialised intensive care, the person would have died.”
Upon disembarkation, the group was transferred to a detention centre under the control of the Libyan authorities. It is common for people returned to Libya from unseaworthy boats to be sent back into a harmful system of arbitrary detention. Between January and August 2018, the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard had returned 13,185 refugees and migrants to Libya.
As part of our activities in detention centres in and around Khoms, MSF teams have provided further medical and follow-up care to the group while they remain in detention. Among the group are pregnant women, children and babies, and people with serious medical conditions and chemical burns. MSF teams have also organised six additional referrals to hospital.
Sick and traumatised people left with no alternative than arbitrary detention
“We are extremely worried for our patients. How can they recover when they are locked inside cells, in very poor hygiene conditions, and sleeping on blankets or mattresses placed on the floor that cause incredible pain for those suffering from severe burns? Some of them cannot even sit or walk.” says Jay Defranciscis. “We have started to see patients with severe chest infections like pneumonia, caused by being in the water for such a long time.”
Inadequate access to clean drinking water and food is likely to delay or prevent people’s recovery and might instead exacerbate their medical conditions.
Many of the survivors are mourning the loss of their relatives. On top of the dangers faced during the journey through Libya, they have experienced another very traumatic situation at sea. Instead of receiving the support they need, refugees and migrants are arrested and detained in deplorable living conditions, without basic safeguards or legal recourse.
Among those detained, MSF has met asylum seekers and refugees who have been registered or recognised by UNHCR in Libya or another country. Their prospects appear particularly bleak: UNHCR-led mechanisms to evacuate them from Libya to Niger and resettle them in a third country, launched in 2017 in the aftermath of the global outrage sparked by CNN footage, have remained at a standstill for several months.
Instead, asylum seekers and refugees face indefinite arbitrary detention and are at risk of being trafficked, as criminal networks are often the only option left for people to continue their journey in search of safety.
Some people also told our teams that they had decided to leave Tripoli to escape the violent clashes and shelling that began on 26 August in the capital.
MSF reiterates its call to end the arbitrary detention of thousands of refugees and migrants across Libya and scale ways to evacuate them to safety out of the country.
Specifically, MSF urges:
- UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and safe countries to rapidly organise the evacuation of refugees and asylum-seekers from Libya and expedite their resettlement,
- UN Migration Agency (IOM) and countries of origin to expedite the evacuation and repatriation of migrants in Libya who wish to return to their home countries.
- European States and Libyan authorities to stop intercepting people who flee by sea and returning them to Libya as a mean to prevent arrivals to Europe.
A mother, and her 9 months old child and 10 years old son (who were in the boat which had stopped due to an engine failure, not the one which capsized and sank):
“We run away only because we don’t feel safe in Libya. We are afraid of human trafficking. People are afraid here. There is no freedom for us. My child was born in prison.”
The 10 years old boy:
“I’m here with my mother and my little sister. We took the sea to go to Europe. We spent many hours at sea. We didn’t have any water to drink so we were drinking salty water. I was thinking that the Italian coast guard would rescue us but finally, we saw the Libyans coming and they brought us back. I saw the bodies of two people who died during the crossing and many people were crying.”
A man who survived the shipwreck, with chemical burns:
“The man next to me didn’t know how to read the coordinates, so I took the phone and I read the coordinates. I was really happy that we were close to Malta. We ran out from this place. How can we live here? We don’t have security here. I have stayed for 2 years in Libya. I have been in Tripoli for the last three months. Did you see the situation there? I saw the tanks, the military cars on the street. Fighting. Why do you think I left Tripoli? I’m so tired and I don’t feel safe. Why they keep us here? Look at me, my body is not the same anymore."
A man who survived the shipwreck:
“Why are people brought back here? I ask this question to Europe. Why the Italians didn’t rescue us? It’s inhumane that we were left all that time at sea. We left from a place close to Tripoli in the night, around 1AM and around 12PM people start falling down in the water. There was a [European] plane that was over us and they managed to pull out some life rafts. I was there, I saw people dying. We called the rescue, a woman responded to our call and she asked our position. Less than 100 people survived. There were many children on the boat. Most of them died. I would not have gone to sea if there were not a war in Tripoli. I have lived in Libya for 10 years and I was working in Tajoura. You cannot move freely now there. I know this country. I have lived here for 10 years. Even if Europe didn’t want to give us asylum, they should not leave us dying at sea.”
A man who survived the shipwreck:
“We left Libya in a rubber dinghy in the night. We were rescued by the Libyan coast guard. We called the Italian authorities and they sent the Libyans to bring us back. While we were sailing we had a problem with our dinghy, it was very hot and the dinghy was deflating. Also at one point the engine stopped. On the boat there were a lot of children and pregnant women. Families. We struggled to survive. We were in the water next to dead bodies. Europe should know what we are going through: we cannot stay in Libya. It’s very dangerous for us. On my left leg, I have a gun shot. My friends helped me to collect money as I wanted to go to Europe to find treatment for my leg. They told me its 10,000 Libyan dinar. I don’t have that money. This is my story, but there are many different stories here. We are not criminals, we are not thieves. We are struggling to survive. I feel very sad and disappointed. It’s painful. I lost a lot of friends. I don’t know my left and my right any more. I don’t know where I will go tomorrow. We need help, and we have been locked up as prisoners. I don’t know why they keep sending people back to Libya. We are running away from here. I am not asking the Italian government to accept all of us to their country, but don’t send us back to Libya."
Header picture: Children in detention centre. Libya, September 2018. © Sara Creta/MSF